Guide to North East Surnames: W

Surnames: Waddle to Wylam

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Waddle surname

Surname focused upon Northumberland and Durham

Early forms of this surname occur in the thirteenth and fourteenth century in Wiltshire and are thought to derive from the name of a place in Kent called Wadenhall (historically Wadehale). However, the distribution of this surname in the 1881 census was primarily focused upon the North East of England. Here it may, in some cases, be associated with the similar surnames Wardle and Weddell.

There were 364 people called Waddle in the 1881 Great Britain census of which 102 lived in Scotland; 102 also lived in Durham and 82 could be found in Northumberland, with small numbers loosely spread elsewhere across England.

A variation of the Waddle surname is the much more numerous Waddel surname which, along with the very rare variants Wadell and Waddall, is overwhelmingly Scottish in distribution in 1881. In the 1881 census there were 2,880 individuals in Great Britain called Waddel of which 2,335 lived in Scotland. In the North of England there were 87 in Lancashire; 77 in Northumberland; 47 in Durham; 7 in Yorkshire and 6 in Westmorland. Others spread across the rest of the country included 88 in London. This could be a variation of Weddell.

Notable people with these surnames include the Alnwick-born sports commentator, Sid Waddell (1940-2012) and the Felling-born footballer, Chris Waddle (born 1960).

(See also Wardle and Weddell below).

Wailes surname

A North East focused surname

Like the surname Wales, this probably describes a foreigner or Briton, a ‘walh’ or someone from Wales, deriving from either the nation of that name or perhaps from the place called Wales near Sheffield.

There were only 290 people with the surname Wailes in the 1881 census for Great Britain and the surname has a North East distribution. In Yorkshire there were 85 Wailes; in Durham 83 and in Northumberland 68. There were 14 in Cumberland and only 3 in Lancashire. Of the small numbers found elsewhere, 6 resided in Scotland and most of the others lived in the midlands. The surname only occurred twice in Wales, in the county of Monmouthshire.

Wake surname

Durham, Yorkshire and Northumberland

A surname found predominantly in Yorkshire and Durham in the 1881 census, where of the 2,550 in Great Britain there were 1,279 residing in the six northern English counties. Of these, 458 resided in Durham; 437 in Yorkshire; 264 in Northumberland; 118 in Lancashire and 2 in Cumberland. Others were spread broadly across the country including 41 in Wales and 198 in London.

Scotland was home to only 5 people of this name in 1881, although Wake is sometimes included in the list of Border Reiver family surnames in Northumberland. The surname derives from a nickname meaning ‘watchful’ from a Viking word vakr and occurs as a surname in Cheshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire in the twelfth century. A Thomas Wake is listed in Bishop Hatfield’s survey of Durham (1377-80) in connection with Newton-cum-Boldon.

Walburn surname

Durham and Yorkshire

This was listed by Henry Guppy as a surname in County Durham
but was also significant in Yorkshire. An uncommon surname in the 1881 Great Britain census with only 94 individuals of which 38 resided in Yorkshire; 38 in Durham and 7 in Lancashire with others thinly distributed across the south. A further 58 people could be found with the separate surname Walborne (and Walbourne) focused upon the south of England and particularly Dorset and London.

A similar surname Welburn was listed by Henry Guppy as a surname in the North or East Riding of Yorkshire.

Walker surname

Widespread surname especially in the North

Walker as a surname is especially notable in Yorkshire and quite numerous in the Teesside area. It is found in large numbers around Leeds and Wakefield. It is undoubtedly a northern name. Notably, one of the most famous Walkers was John Walker of Stockton-on-Tees who invented the friction match in 1827.

As early as 1260 the surname Walker is recorded in Yorkshire where the Assize Rolls mention a Robert le Walker. Le Walker ‘the Walker’ is a clue that this was an occupational name, as Walker is one of a number of surnames connected with the clothmaking process. A Walker scoured and thickened raw cloth by beating it in water. This was originally done by men who trampled or literally walked on the cloth in a trough – hence ‘walker’. In Durham we find a small street called Walkergate, which was likely the street of the cloth workers who worked at a mill near the River Wear.

Walkergate, Clayport Gate site, Durham
Walkergate, Clayport Gate site, Durham © David Simpson

An alternative name for the walking process was fulling and this has given rise to Fuller, a surname more commonly found in the south and midlands. Another name for a fuller was a ‘tucker’ deriving from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘Tucian’ – ‘to torment’. The surname Tucker is primarily associated with south west England.

Other cloth working surnames include Webster and Weaver, who wove the raw cloth before it was fulled. After fulling, the Teasler was set to work removing lose fibres from the cloth using the Teasel Thistle. This has given rise to the surnames Tazelaar and Tesler. Finally the cloth was dyed by the Dyers who were known in the north as Litsters from the Scandinavian word Litt – to dye. This final process has produced the surnames Dyer and Lister: especially in the midlands.

A Robert and an Alanus Walker feature in Bishop Hatfield’s survey of Durham (1377-80) in connection with Houghton-le-Spring.

In the 1881 census there were 100,418 people called Walker in Great Britain of which 39,164 resided in the six northern counties of England and 17,375 resided in Scotland. Yorkshire was home to 19,880 Walkers; Lancashire 12,048; Durham 4,085; Northumberland 1,427; Cumberland 1,255 and Westmorland 469.

Walker was the 5th most numerous surname in Yorkshire in the 1881 census. It was the 12th most numerous in Westmorland; 14th in County Durham; 16th in Lancashire; 21st in Cumberland and 39th in Northumberland.

Wallace surname

Scottish surname also significant in Northern England

A Scottish surname that is also well established in Northumberland and Durham. Though it is a famous Scottish surname, Wallace ultimately means ‘Briton’ or ‘Welshman’. In 1881 there were 20,573 people of this name in the census for Great Britain of which 10,618 resided in Scotland. The northern counties of England were home to significant numbers. There were 1,282 in Lancashire; 982 in Durham; 926 in Yorkshire; 768 in Northumberland; 387 in Cumberland and 58 in Westmorland.

Walton surname

Widespread surname significant in the North

A name associated with the North and which Henry Guppy associated with County Durham (notably he identified it in the Darlington area by which he likely meant the south and south west ward of the entire county of Durham). According to Guppy, in the past the surname had been associated with Weardale ‘for ages’. It is certainly significant as a North of England surname.

In the 1881 census there were 21,137 people called Walton of which 4,359 lived in Yorkshire; 3,768 in Lancashire and 2,441 in Durham. Proportionally this was very significant in Durham when the respective population of each county is taken into account (see the population note at the bottom of this page). Northumberland was home to 864 Waltons, Cumberland 477 and Westmorland 74. In Scotland there were 289 Waltons. There were 11 Waltons in Wales and 1,279 in London with others spread across the country. The name could derive from any one of many places of the name Walton.

Walton ranked 41st amongst the most numerous surnames in County Durham in 1881 but did not feature in the top fifty for any of the other northern counties of England.

Wanless surname

Northumberland and Durham name

Listed by Henry Guppy as a surname in Northumberland, this name is mentioned in connection with Scotland as early as 1451 (a Simon Wanles) and in Northumberland as early as 1578 in a record of a John Wanles of Byrkheds. A dyer called Edward Wanless was a mayor of Durham City in 1603 and 1609 and a Henry Wanless of the same trade is mentioned in that city in 1667.  Wanlass Lane was an old name for the street called Providence Row in Durham City, the name changing some time in the early to mid nineteenth century. Wanless was also the name of a popular Tyne Tees Television presenter, the Wallsend-born Neville Wanless (1931-2020).

The name occurs in the 1881 census only 852 times in a number of different but clearly related forms with almost all demonstrating a North East focus. The most common form was Wanless of which there were 519 individuals. They included 223 in Durham; 108 in Northumberland 42 in Yorkshire; 31 in Lancashire and 94 in Scotland.

The next most numerous form of the surname in the 1881 census was Wandless of which there were 202 in Great Britain, mostly in Durham where there were 133 with the next most significant counties being Northumberland where there were 34 and Yorkshire where there were 17. Another variation was Wanlace of which there were only 25 in Britain, all residing in Northumberland.

Other variations including Wandlass, Wanles, Wandles, and Wandlass all occurred in tiny numbers with each of these names most prominent in either Durham or Northumberland. An exception was the variation Wanliss where out of only 12 individuals listed in the census, 8 resided in Scotland. All of these variations of the surname derive from an old medieval word ‘wanles’ meaning ‘luckless’.

Ward surname

Widespread in England and prominent in Yorkshire

A surname that is scattered across England but especially notable in Yorkshire. There were 65,550 people called Ward in the Great Britain census in 1881 of which 21,343 resided in the northern counties. Of these some 10,993 resided in Yorkshire alone.

In other counties of the North, the surname Ward numbered as follows in 1881: Lancashire 7,254; Durham 1,995; Northumberland 530; Cumberland 465 and Westmorland 106. There were 2,216 Wards in Scotland and 588 in Wales. Others were spread broadly across the rest of England including 6,537 in London. The surname occurs in Yorkshire as early as 1194 (John Warde) and may refer to a watchman or guard of some kind.

Ward was the 15th most numerous name in the county of Yorkshire in 1881 and ranked 47th in the county of Durham and also 47th in Lancashire but did not make it into the top fifty for Northumberland, Cumberland or Westmorland.

Wardle surname

Widespread in North, of separate Durham and Cheshire origins

The surname Wardle, or at least some incidences of the surname, derive from Weardale with the first recorded occurrence being a William de Werdale in Durham in 1216 and occurring again in Durham as Wardell in 1539. Over the centuries this name has been corrupted into numerous variations including Wardale, Wardill, Wardel, Wardall as well as Wardle itself.

However, it seems likely that a separate version of the name also developed in the North West from a place called Wardle (‘watch hill’) in Cheshire. This likely also gave rise to some of the variations listed above so that it is difficult to unravel which ones may have originated in the North East from those of the North West.

A Weardale scene near Cowshill © David Simpson

In the 1881 census for Great Britain the most numerous variation of the surname is Wardle with 5,848 individuals. Of these only 25 lived in Scotland. However, 2,915 people called Wardle lived in the six northern counties of England with 1,099 in Lancashire; 697 in Yorkshire; 641 in Durham; 454 in Northumberland; 22 in Cumberland and 2 in Westmorland. A further 395 lived in Cheshire. It is important to remember that Yorkshire and Lancashire were much more populous counties than Durham and Northumberland (see population notes at the end of the page) so the number of Wardles in Northumberland and Durham was proportionally more significant.

Of the remaining Wardles, most were focused upon the midland counties with relatively few in the south east and London. Staffordshire was home to 623; Derbyshire 501; Leicestershire 452 and Nottinghamshire 376. These names were perhaps associated with a Cheshire version of the name.

Wardell is the next most numerous version of the surname in 1881 with 1,200 individuals, primarily in the North with 449 in Yorkshire; 154 in Durham; 46 in Lancashire and 9 in Northumberland. The remaining Wardells were spread across the midlands and south east.

Of the other variant names, Wardale consisted of 235 individuals spread across the country including 50 in Lincolnshire; 38 in Yorkshire and 17 in Durham.

Another variation, Wardill consisted of 118 individuals of which 90 resided in Yorkshire. Wardel encompassed 96 individuals and was most numerous in Durham with 38 individuals, followed by Yorkshire with 12. Wardall was spread across the country with only 76 individuals in Great Britain including 21 in Yorkshire.

Washington surname

Historic Durham and Wearside connection

Not a common name in England but ultimately this famous surname has its roots at Washington in the historic county Durham, now part of the City of Sunderland  in ‘Tyne and Wear’. The first Washington was a William De Wessington in the twelfth century, ancestor of course of the first President of the United States. The family were originally called De Hartburn, from the manor of Hartburn near Stockton-on-Tees which they sold to the Bishop of Durham, Hugh Pudsey in exchange for Washington.

Washington Old Hall © David Simpson
Washington Old Hall © David Simpson

In Bishop Hatfield’s survey of Durham (1377-80), a Sir Walter Washington is listed as one of the knights of Durham. The influence of the family in the North East reached considerable heights when John Washington was the Prior of Durham Cathedral monastery from 1416 to 1446, a powerful position in those times as the Durham priory owned vast areas of land across the region.

In later years the family drifted away from the region and in the 1881 census the Washington surname consisted of 1,527 individuals spread throughout England but with virtually no presence in the four northernmost counties. There were only 4 Washingtons in Durham, the county of its origin and only 4 in Westmorland. In Yorkshire and Lancashire there were, however, respectively 215 and 198 Washingtons. Other counties of note for Washingtons included Cheshire with 210 and Staffordshire with 209. There were 113 people called Washington in London and only 11 in Scotland.

The family tree of George Washington, first President of the United States can be traced back to the Washingtons of Durham.

Watson surname

Widespread, northern English and Scottish surname

A widespread surname but principally northern and found especially in County Durham and Yorkshire. It is also very numerous in Scotland. The surname occurs in Yorkshire in the fourteenth century and means ‘son of Wat’, a shortened pet form of Walter.

Watson was the 9th most numerous surname in County Durham in the 1881 census. It was 12th in Northumberland; 16th in Cumberland; 18th in Yorkshire and 32nd in Westmorland but did not feature in the top fifty names for Lancashire.

There were 69,212 people called Watson in the 1881 census of which 18,119 lived in Scotland and 27,098 lived in the six northern counties of England. Their numbers in the northern counties were 10,379 in Yorkshire; 5,909 in Lancashire; 5,846 in Durham; 2,844 in Northumberland; 1,781 in Cumberland and 239 in Westmorland. There were 500 in Wales with others spread across the rest of England including London which was home to 5,033.

Wearmouth surname

County Durham surname

Listed by Henry Guppy as a surname ‘peculiar’ to Durham, this surname comes from the place called Wearmouth (Sunderland), which was generally the old name for the borough. A County Durham name but most closely associated with Weardale. A family that has seemingly moved up river at some time. Compare the Wearmouth surname to the surname Sunderland which is a West Yorkshire name.

In the seventeenth century, Wearmouths (with the variant spelling Warmouth) were an influential family in Newcastle upon Tyne where William Warmouth was the mayor in 1603, 1614 and 1631 and Henry Warmouth the mayor in 1644.

In the 1881 census there were only 409 people called Wearmouth in Great Britain of which 324 resided in Durham; 44 in Yorkshire; 22 in Westmorland and 13 in Northumberland. Of the remaining 6 there were 5 residing in London and Surrey and 1 in Derbyshire. In addition there were 13 occurrences of a variation Warmouth, with 8 of these residing in Lincolnshire; 4 in Durham and 1 in Lancashire.

The River Wear at Sunderland
The River Wear at Sunderland © David Simpson

Weddell and Weddle surname

Northumberland name

Listed by Henry Guppy as surnames in Northumberland. The variation Weddle is found in North Yorkshire but also in the North East. A Weddell is mentioned in connection with Swinhoe near Hexham in the seventeenth century. Guppy thought the name was a contraction of Tweddell from Tweed dale, the valley of the Tweed.

Weighell surname

Yorkshire and Durham surname

Listed by Henry Guppy as a surname in the North or East Riding of Yorkshire. In the 1881 census, the name takes the form Weighell, Weighel and Weighill and together they amount to only 428 individuals in that census with a geographical distribution that indicates they are likely spelling variants of the same surname.

In 1881 there were 251 individuals of this name in Yorkshire and 125 in Durham (including 6 uniquely named Waghells). In other counties their numbers were very small: there were 17 in Lancashire; 11 in Northumberland; 7 in Lincolnshire; 4 in Cheshire; 3 in each of London, Sussex and Worcestershire; 2 in Staffordshire; 1 in Kent and 1 in Wiltshire. The surname derives from the place called Wighill in Yorkshire and occurs in the Yorkshire Poll Tax returns of 1379 when a Katerina de Wygehale is mentioned,

Welford surname

Yorkshire and Durham surname

Listed by Henry Guppy as a surname in the North or East Riding of Yorkshire. It seems to be focused on north eastern parts of that county. It occurs 874 times in the 1881 census predominantly in Yorkshire where there were 288 individuals, followed by Durham with 110. There were 60 in Northumberland; 28 in Lancashire; 5 in Cumberland and 1 in Westmorland. Many of the remainder were spread across the south east, including London where there were 75 Welfords.

Welsh surnames in North East England

Welsh surnames

Numerous Welsh surnames such as Jones, Thomas, Williams, Edwards, Hughes and Davies can be found throughout the North East region and in many cases were associated with the movement and settlement of people during industrial growth and development, especially in the nineteenth century. Names of Welsh origin are also of even greater significance in the North West – in Cheshire and Lancashire due to their relative proximity to Wales.

Westgarth surname

County Durham surname

A name of west Durham and its dales. In the 1881 census there were only 521 individuals called Westgarth in Great Britain of which 295 lived in County Durham followed by Northumberland with 86. In Cumberland there were 32; in Lancashire 10 and in Westmorland only 3. London was home to 44 individuals and 7 resided in Scotland with a small number scattered elsewhere in England. A ‘garth’ is an enclosure of some kind and is a Scandinavian word.

Wharton surname

Surname associated with Westmorland

Wharton is a surname associated with Westmorland. In the 1881 census there were 4,198 people of this name of which 2,542 resided in the six northern counties of England. Their numbers in those counties were as follows: Lancashire 967; Yorkshire 948; Durham 356; Westmorland 146 and Cumberland 106. We should keep in mind that Westmorland as a county was very small in terms of population (see the population note at the end of this page) so the figure for that county is proportionally significant. Remaining Whartons were spread throughout England. There were only 17 people of this name in Scotland.

Wheatley surname

Widespread surname, numerous in the north

A surname that is fairly widespread throughout England with 6,101 people of this name in the Great Britain census of 1881 (76 in Scotland and 24 in Wales) but with a significant portion in the six northern counties and proportionally significant in Northumberland and Durham. In Yorkshire there were 840 Wheatleys; in Durham 577; in Northumberland 196 and in Lancashire 159 plus 19 in Cumberland.

Now I’m most depressed and sad
Where I once was blithe and glad
I could trip aboot the town both trim and neatly
I was happy night and morn’
But from all such joys I’m shorn
Since I fell so deep in love with Sally Wheatley
And it’s oh, dear me, what am I ganna dee
Sally stole away me heart completely
And I’ll never get it back, for she gans with mister Black
And they say he’s going to marry Sally Wheatley

‘Sally Wheatley’ by Joe Wilson

White surname

Widespread surname

Although widespread across England and familiar in the North it was regarded by Henry Guppy as relatively infrequent in the North and in the eastern counties compared to other parts of England and Wales. Nevertheless in the 1881 census it was the 40th most numerous surname in County Durham; 41st in Northumberland; 43rd in Yorkshire and 50th in Cheshire but did not make it into the top fifty names for Cumberland, Westmorland or Lancashire. There were 96,418 individuals called White in the 1881 census (ignoring spelling variations such as ‘Whyte’) of which 17,215 resided in the six northern most counties.

The surname likely describes someone who is fair-haired or fair-skinned and may have developed independently in more than one place. It could in some cases have developed from a personal name such as Hwitta or something similar.

Whitwell surname

Yorkshire surname

Listed by Henry Guppy as a surname in the North or East Riding of Yorkshire. There were 887 people of this name in the Great Britain census of which 235 resided in Yorkshire; 84 in Westmorland; 79 in Lancashire; 20 in Durham and 7 in Northumberland. Only 6 resided in Scotland with many of the remaining numbers found in London and the south east. The surname could have derived from one of a number of places in England.

Widdrington surname

Northumberland surname

A surname especially associated with Northumberland. It derives from the place of this name near Druridge Bay in Northumberland. The Widdringtons were a notable Northumbrian family who owned Plessey near Cramlington; Woodhorn near Ashington and nearby Newbiggin-by-the-Sea in the fourteenth century.

In the English Civil War, Cartington Castle in Northumberland was held by a Royalist called Sir Edward Widdrington who came under siege from the Parliamentarians. In the following century the Widdringtons were notable supporters of the Jacobite cause and were punished with the confiscation of their lands.

Newbiggin church
Newbiggin church © David Simpson

Other places that have been connected with the Widdrington family in times past have included Fishburn in County Durham and Monkwearmouth in Sunderland. In the eighteenth century they were owners of Stella Hall near Blaydon. An eighteenth century ballad called The Hermit of Warkworth concerns the cause of a gallant knight, Sir Bertram of Bothal in his pursuit of Isabel, the daughter of a Lord Widdrington.

Newton Hall near Swarland in Northumberland was a one time home of a Samuel Edward Cook (1787-1856) who took the name Widdrington (his mother’s maiden name) after inheriting some of the Widdrington estates. It was Cook who had Newton Hall built, possibly by the Newcastle architect, William Newton.

There were only 99 individuals with the surname Widdrington in the 1881 census. Of these individuals 55 resided in Northumberland; 15 in Durham and 8 in Yorkshire; 17 could be found in London and Surrey and 4 resided in Hampshire.

Wilkinson surname

Widespread northern surname

A Northern name in its broadest sense, found particularly in the northern half of England and especially Yorkshire. A notable Wilkinson was the Jarrow and Middlesbrough MP, Ellen Wikinson. In the 1881 census Wilkinson was the 13th most numerous name in Yorkshire; 14th in Westmorland; 18th in Durham; 24th in Lancashire; 28th in Cheshire; 31st in Cumberland and 43rd in Northumberland. There were 45,754 Wilkinsons in the census of 1881 of which 31,415 resided in the seven northern counties (including Cheshire).

Williams surname 

Welsh surname, numerous in the North

A very numerous surname in Great Britain, often of Welsh origin. Like the surnames Williamson and Wilson (which are more closely associated with England and Scotland), it means son of William, or descendant of William.

There were 215,297 people in the 1881 census with this name of which 106,234 resided in Wales. There were 1,486 people of this name in Scotland with the rest were distributed widely across England. In the six northernmost counties there were 24,819 people of this name in 1881 of which a staggering 18,257 resided in Lancashire  where Williamson was the 5th most numerous surname in the county. In neighbouring Cheshire, which borders Wales, there were 5,622 people with this name and it ranked 3rd in that county.

Of the other Northern counties in the 1881 census there were 3,827 people called Williams in Yorkshire; 2,009 in Durham; 393 in Cumberland; 282 in Northumberland and 51 in Westmorland. The surname did not feature in the top fifty names for any of these counties in marked contrast to the surname Wilson.

The surnames McWilliam and McWilliams are principally Scottish.

Williamson surname 

Widespread surname with a Northern focus

Focused upon the northern half of England and in Scotland. There were 27,143 people of this name in the 1881 census including 8,521 in Scotland and 9,114 in the six northern counties as follows: Lancashire 4,019; Yorkshire 2,943; Durham 1,065; Cumberland 594; Northumberland 457; Westmorland 36. There were 1,544 people with this name in London and only 154 in Wales with the rest spread mainly across the midlands and south east.

Williamson was the 50th most numerous surname in the 1881 census in Cumberland but did not make it into the top fifty of the other six northernmost counties of England. However it was the 40th most numerous surname in Cheshire, a long way behind the similar Williams surname. Compare the surname’s distribution to Williams and Wilson.

Wilson surname

Numerous northern surname

A very numerous and widespread name, especially in the North and in Scotland. There were 137,958 people with this name in the 1881 census of which 37,557 resided in Scotland. In the six northern counties of England it was even more numerous, the North being home to 54,962 Wilsons as follows: Yorkshire 22,152; Lancashire 15,693; Durham 8,602; Northumberland 4,043; Cumberland 3,340 and Westmorland 1,132.

The name Wilson featured in the top fifty most numerous names in all six of the northernmost English counties in 1881 and in Cheshire too. It was the 3rd most numerous name in the counties of Yorkshire; Cumberland and Westmorland; 4th in Durham; 7th in Northumberland; 8th in Lancashire and 25th in Cheshire. Wilson is sometimes included in the list of Border Reiver family surnames.

A variation, Willson (with a double L) is a much rarer surname occurring only 3,484 times in the 1881 census and is mostly focused on the eastern midlands and south east with a curiously high number in Lincolnshire (431) as well as in Kent (393) and in London (550). Even in the south east it is still far-outnumbered by Wilson.

Witty surname

Yorkshire surname

Listed as a Guppy surname in the North or East Riding of Yorkshire. In distribution it is certainly a Yorkshire and northern surname in the 1881 census (a similar surname Whitty has a distinctly southern distribution). In the 1881 census there were only 597 people with the name Witty, of which 405 resided in Yorkshire; 42 in Durham; 41 in Lancashire and 9 in Northumberland, with the remainder spread across England and particularly the south east.

Wood surname

Widespread surname, numerous in the North

Identified as a surname especially focused on a region encompassing Yorkshire, Cheshire, and the north midlands counties. In the 1881 census the surname was very widespread but with particularly significant numbers in Yorkshire and Lancashire. There were 95,695 people of this name in the 1881 census of which 8,134 resided in Scotland and 37,515 in the six northern counties as follows: Yorkshire 19,187; Lancashire 13,096; Durham 2,605; Northumberland 1,591; Cumberland 743 and Westmorland 113. Cheshire was home to 3,536 individuals of this name.

In 1881 Wood was the 6th most numerous surname in Yorkshire; 10th in both Westmorland and Cheshire; 14th in Lancashire; 32nd in Northumberland; 38th in Cumberland and 39th in Durham.

The similar surname Woods is less numerous than Wood although there were still 18,946 occurrences in the 1881 census. Of these, there were 933 in Scotland and 6,093 in the six most northern counties of England. In the North, this name was extraordinarily prominent in Lancashire with 5,092 individuals, followed by Yorkshire 473; Durham 304; Northumberland 104; Cumberland 98 and Westmorland 22. There were significant numbers in some of the eastern counties such as Lincolnshire 702 and Norfolk 1,072 but generally quite widespread across the south and south east.

The Wood and Woods surnames derive from someone who lived in or near a wood. A notable Wood was the North East engineer, Nicholas Wood (1795-1865).

Wooler surname

Predominant in Yorkshire

The Wooler surname describes a seller or weaver of wool, occurring in early forms as ‘le woller’, although in some cases it could derive from the town of Wooler in Northumberland which is the case with a John Wollore mentioned in connection with Yorkshire in 1430. The name occurs 857 times in the 1881 census census including many in the form Wooller with a double L.  Considering both variations together there were 369 residing in Yorkshire; 115 in Lancashire; 115 in London; 24 in Durham; 11 in Cumberland and only 2 in Northumberland. There were 56 people with the name in Scotland.

Wright surname

Widespread surname, particularly in Yorkshire

Wright is an old term for a carpenter or joiner and as a surname is widespread in England. A notable Wright from the North East was the astronomer and mathematician, Thomas Wright (1711-1786) best remembered by the observatory known as Wright’s Folly in the Durham village of Westerton.

Observatory at Westerton
Observatory at Westerton © David Simpson

In the 1881 census there were 96,189 individuals called Wright in Great Britain of which 8,037 resided in Scotland and 1,131 in Wales. London was home to 9,923 Wrights and the name was widely spread across England but with very significant numbers in the six northernmost counties and particularly Yorkshire where there were 12,422 people called Wright. In Lancashire there were 10,520 people called Wright; 2,863 in Durham; 1,187 in Northumberland; 642 in Cumberland and 133 in Westmorland.

In Cheshire there were 3,053 people of the name Wright where it was the 13th most numerous surname in that county in 1881. Wright ranked 14th in Yorkshire; 22nd in Lancashire; 33rd in Durham; 45th in Cumberland and 50th in Northumberland.

Wrightson surname

Yorkshire and Durham surname

In the 1881 census this surname occurs 866 times of which 405 individuals resided in Yorkshire and 213 in Durham. There were 62 Wrightsons in Northumberland; 61 in London; 28 in Lancashire and 7 in Cumberland with the rest spread thinly across the midlands and south. A Wrightson occurs in the poll tax returns for Yorkshire in 1379. Head Wrightson was a notable engineering company based at Thornaby on Tees.

Wycliffe surname

Historic Yorkshire surname

Wycliffe, Wycliff, Wicliffe and Wiclif are all variations on a surname with the same meaning and origin. Early owners of the surname, with yet more different spellings include Robert of Wyclyve in 1252, Robert de Wyclyf 1354 and Robert Wyclif in 1388.

The first two Wycliffes lived in Yorkshire, which is the place of origin for the surname. To be more exact the Wycliffe family originated from Wycliffe on the Yorkshire bank of the River Tees between Gainford and Barnard Castle. Wycliffe, as a place-name has, like the surname, seen several different spellings during its history including Witclive, Wigeclif, Wittecliff and Wycliff.

Wycliffe village
Wycliffe village © David Simpson

All of these names refer to a supposed ‘white cliff’ overlooking the Tees, although in its old sense the word ‘cliffe’ often meant hill or river bank. The most famous member of the Wycliffe family was the social and religious reformer John Wycliffe (c1328-1384). It is sometimes claimed that Wycliffe was born at Wycliffe, but although the Wycliffe family had lived at Wycliffe for centuries, their most famous son is thought to have been born at Hipswell near Catterick.

As master of Balliol College Oxford, Wycliffe was famous for his outspoken views on religion and the scriptures. It was due to him and his followers called the Lollards, that the first translation of the Bible into English was made. The Wycliff surname does not occur in the 1881 census,

Wylam surname

Northumberland and Durham surname

Predominantly found in the North East and presumably derived from the place in the Tyne Valley. In the 1881 census there were 124 people with this name in Great Britain of which 88 resided in Durham; 22 in Northumberland; 4 each in Somerset and Sussex; 3 in Glamorgan, south Wales; 2 in Yorkshire and 1 in Hampshire.

Rose Line Building
‘Wylam Wharf’, Rose Line Building, Sunderland © David Simpson

North East Surnames beginning with:

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Historic counties of Great Britain and Ireland
Historic counties of Great Britain and Ireland showing the six northern counties of England © David Simpson and England’s North East 2021
Note on the populations of English counties in 1881

When comparing figures for individual numbers of a surname in 1881 it is important to be aware of the actual population of each of the Northern English counties. As you can see from the figures below, 500 individuals with a particular surname in Westmorland would be proportionally much more significant than 500 people of the same surname residing in Lancashire. You might well describe such a surname as a ‘Westmorland name’ but the numbers would not be significant enough to describe it as a ‘Lancashire surname’, at least not as defined by the 1881 distribution. The 1881 northern county populations were as follows:

  • Northumberland: Population 434,658. The county included Newcastle upon Tyne, Wallsend, North Shields, Tynemouth and Whitley Bay and a mining district in the south east of the county including the port of Blyth. As well as indigenous Northumbrian surnames, ‘Border names’ are often abundant in this county, occasionally taking on a form that is distinct from similar Scottish surnames.
  • Durham: Population 869,130. The county included Sunderland, Gateshead, South Shields, Jarrow, Darlington, Stockton-on-Tees and Hartlepool. Numerous small mining towns and villages lie across the county between these major centres of population and like the industrial centres were often the home to surnames that originated in Northumberland and North Yorkshire as well as home-grown in County Durham.
  • Yorkshire: Population 2,895,049. This county included the iron town of Middlesbrough on the south bank of the River Tees in the north east corner of the county as well as ‘West Riding’ towns like Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Halifax, York, Huddersfield to the south. Most of the population of Yorkshire was and still is focused upon the urban and industrialised south west of the county where there is a close relationship in terms of surnames with neighbouring Lancashire across the Pennines. The far south of the county around Sheffield is also very populous. The rural East Riding along with the city of Hull may have a close relationship with neighbouring Lincolnshire. From a North East point of view many of the surnames we describe as ‘Durham and Yorkshire’ are almost always specifically focused upon North Yorkshire and south Durham, though often stretching across the whole of Durham in distribution.
  • Cumberland: Population 251,520. The main centres in this county included Carlisle and the industrial coastal towns of Whitehaven and Workington. As in Northumberland, ‘Border surnames’ have a strong influence here, often originating from or stretching into Scottish counties of the western borders, notably Dumfriesshire.
  • Westmorland: Population 64,204. This was a relatively small and rural county in terms of population. Characterised by small market towns and farming villages, it has its own distinct surname distribution. Along with Cumberland it is now part of Cumbria.
  • Lancashire: Population 3,466,597. This highly populated county included Liverpool and Manchester as well as major towns such as Bolton; Preston; Burnley; Oldham, Rochdale and a number of mill towns. The historic county also stretched into the south Lakeland area in what is now (along with Cumberland and Westmorland) part of Cumbria. The industries of Lancashire were a great draw for immigration from Scotland; Ireland and Wales, particularly in the nineteenth century.
  • Cheshire: We occasionally include details of surname distribution in Cheshire (its population in 1881 was 644,895) where relevant, though surnames in Cheshire and indeed Lancashire and to some extent West Yorkshire often take on a distinctly different character and pattern of distribution to surnames in the other northern counties. Welsh surnames are also quite significant in Cheshire given its location on the Welsh Border. In fact some suburbs of the city of Chester are located within Wales.
  • Counties of the Midlands and South: In addition to the six northernmost counties plus Cheshire, there were a further 32 other counties in England as follows: Bedfordshire; Berkshire; Buckinghamshire; Cambridgeshire; Cornwall; Derbyshire; Devon; Dorset; Essex; Gloucestershire; Hampshire; Hertfordshire; Hertfordshire; Huntingdonshire; Kent; Leicestershire; Lincolnshire; London (Middlesex); Norfolk; Northamptonshire; Nottinghamshire; Oxfordshire; Rutland; Shropshire; Somerset; Staffordshire; Suffolk; Surrey; Sussex; Warwickshire; Wiltshire and Worcestershire.
  • The South East: Of these other English counties, London and some of its neighbouring counties were particularly populous as of course they still are. There were just short of 3 million people in Middlesex (London) and additionally in Surrey there were 1.4 million people. In Essex there were more than half a million people and the population in Kent (996,770) was just short of a million. Such a populous region as the South East often inevitably includes Northern surnames that have gravitated southward but rarely do these surnames have any proportional significance within the population of the South East.
  • Scotland: The total population of Scotland in 1881 was 3.4 million, focused primarily on the central lowland belt stretching from Glasgow to Edinburgh.
  • Wales: The total population of Wales in 1881 was just over 1.5 million and focused upon Cardiff, Swansea and the industrial mining valleys of the south.

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Introduction to North East surnames

Border Reivers

Guppy’s surnames

North East Notable People


Border Reiver Surnames of the Anglo-Scottish Border. Poster Print.


North East England History and Culture